Justices find President must “comply with the rule of law”

In a long-awaited decision issued today, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court held that President Bush’s use of military tribunals is illegal–the first step in bringing the administration back into compliance with constitutional and international law.  

As EarthRights International detailed in its 2005 report, Shock and Law: George W. Bush’s Attack on Law and Universal Human Rights , the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is a “legal black hole” and a “lawless environment” where the Bush Administration refuses to follow either the U.S. Constitution or international law such as the Geneva Conventions.  Without any authorization from Congress, Bush has decreed that certain prisoners accused of crimes be tried by special military commissions.  These “special tribunals” do not include many of the well-recognized basic procedural protections, including the right to be present at trial and the right to view evidence offered against the accused; they also potentially allow the admission of evidence obtained through the use of torture.
Examining the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court held that these military commissions violate U.S. military law as well as the Geneva Conventions by not providing the standard procedural protections that would be applied in a U.S. court martial.  “The procedures that the Government has decreed will govern Hamdan’s trial by commission violate these laws,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens–the only sitting justice with military experience.  With respect to the Geneva Conventions in particular, the Court noted that although international law prescribes only general requirements for “trying individuals captured during armed conflict,” Bush’s military commission “does not meet those requirements.”

Most importantly, the Court reiterated that the President is not above the law: “[I]n undertaking to try Hamdan and subject him to criminal punishment, the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction.”

Unfortunately, this ruling does not require the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, nor does it prevent the President from detaining the prisoners indefinitely.  However, EarthRights International hopes that this is the first of many decisions by the courts and the Congress to rein in the Bush Administration, which has acted without regard to fundamental human rights as well as the basic tenets of the rule of law.  Military commissions are not the only abuse of executive power at Guantanamo Bay; as we noted in February, the United Nations has documented gross human rights abuses at the detention facility, including torture .  Elsewhere, from illegal wiretaps to memos arguing that torture can be reconciled with the Geneva Conventions, the President has repeatedly expressed disdain for any rule that might limit his power.  We hope that now the President will realize that he is bound by the U.S. Constitution, laws enacted by Congress, and international law.

The U.S. government cannot effectively promote the rule of law and basic human rights in its foreign policy unless its own actions reflect those principles.  Thus, we repeat our call for a program to restore the rule of law, including the condemnation of torture, a commitment to adhere to the Geneva Conventions and international treaties generally, respect for human rights, and support for the United Nations’ efforts in protecting human rights and promoting peace and security.  With respect to Guantanamo Bay in particular, we believe that if the detention facility cannot be operated in accordance with U.S. and international law, it should be closed; the remaining detainees should either be charged and tried or released; and the use of torture should be permanently disavowed by the Bush administration.

Read the full Supreme Court opinion .